AP general counsel urges lawmakers to strengthen FOIA

Associated Press General Counsel Karen Kaiser today urged lawmakers to enact bipartisan legislation now before the U.S. Senate to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act and make it work better.

Karen Kaiser, general counsel at The Associated Press, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 6, 2015, before the Senate Judiciary hearing on open records laws. Kaiser testified that despite promises of greater transparency by the Obama administration, most agencies are not abiding by their legal obligations under open records laws. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Karen Kaiser, general counsel at The Associated Press, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 6, 2015, before the Senate Judiciary hearing on open records laws. Kaiser testified that despite promises of greater transparency by the Obama administration, most agencies are not abiding by their legal obligations under open records laws. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In testimony delivered to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary in Washington, Kaiser detailed the many problems journalists and the public face when seeking access to public documents.

“Non-responsiveness is the norm. The reflex of most agencies is to withhold information, not to release, and often there is no recourse for a requester other than pursuing costly litigation,” Kaiser said. “This is a broken system that needs reform. Simply stated, government agencies should not be able to avoid the transparency requirements of the law in such continuing and brazen ways.”

Kaiser, who spoke on behalf of AP and The Sunshine in Government Initiative (SGI), a coalition of media associations promoting open government, said the legislation would “result in a more informed citizenry and a more transparent and accountable government.”

Kaiser said the legislation is critical to:

  • improving efficiencies for FOIA requesters.
  • reducing the troubling backlog of cases.
  • driving agencies to decisions that better align with FOIA’s goals.
  • ensuring government operates from a presumption of openness in most cases.

AP is a leading and aggressive advocate for transparency in government. As detailed in the news organization’s 2014 annual report, requesting public records and fighting for access around the world have long been AP priorities. AP journalists file many hundreds of requests each year for government records and other information under FOIA and state open records statutes, many of which resulted in important stories that the public would otherwise not have known.

Last week, AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll detailed some recent government access challenges, on NPR’s “On the Media,” and in March AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt wrote a column published in newspapers across the country that explained how the government is undermining “right to know” laws.

AP CEO welcomes DOJ’s revised media guidelines

The Associated Press today welcomed revised guidelines on how the federal government could obtain records from the news media during leak investigations.

Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of The Associated Press, delivers the keynote address at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce annual meeting luncheon in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Pruitt spoke on the subject of "Free Press vs. National Security: The False Choice." (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of The Associated Press, delivers the keynote address at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce annual meeting luncheon in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Pruitt spoke on the subject of “Free Press vs. National Security: The False Choice.” (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

The guidelines, released by the Justice Department, revised steps announced last year in the wake of a public and media industry outcry over the secret seizure of AP phone records in May 2013.

“We are very pleased the Justice Department took our concerns seriously and implemented changes that will strengthen the protection of journalists for years to come,” said AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt.

AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser added: “These revisions advance the law significantly. In particular, the changes eliminate potential ambiguity of what constitutes newsgathering and help provide consistency in how the guidelines are interpreted across investigations and administrations.”

The AP, together with the Newspaper Association of America and the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, played a leading role in advocating for the changes on behalf of a coalition of news organizations.

In 2013, Pruitt had decried the DOJ’s seizure of the AP phone records during a leak investigation, calling the action  “unconstitutional” in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” and warning it would have a negative impact on journalism.

AP’s industry leadership in challenging the DOJ and calling for stronger protections for journalists was recognized last year with a First Amendment Award from the Radio Television Digital News Foundation (RTDNF) and the Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s memo spelling out the new guidelines is found on the DOJ’s website.

Why AP didn’t run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

In this Sept.19, 2012 file photo,  Stephane Charbonnier also known as Charb ,  the editor of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, displays the front page of the newspaper as he poses for photographers in Paris. AP moved this image on the wire this week. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

In this Sept.19, 2012 file photo, Stephane Charbonnier, the editor of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, displays a front page of the newspaper as he poses for photographers in Paris. AP moved this image on the wire this week. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

The attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris raised many questions about how news agencies handle controversial images. We answered some of them Wednesday in response to calls from reporters and bloggers. Below is a summary of the questions and our replies.

Did AP run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons mocking Islam?
AP tries hard not to be a conveyor belt for images and actions aimed at mocking or provoking people on the basis of religion, race or sexual orientation. We did not run the “Danish cartoons” mocking Muhammad in 2005, or the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the same type. While we run many photos that are politically or socially provocative, there are areas verging on hate speech and actions where we feel it is right to be cautious.

This policy is consistent with our approach to sound bites and text reporting, where we avoid racist, religious and sexual slurs.

But don’t such images and speech sometimes make news?
They do, and we may need to describe hate speech and images when they lead to attacks or arrests. But we limit ourselves to brief descriptions, often without the images or slurs themselves. Routinely publicizing hate speech and images can lead to a “can-you-top-this” situation where provocateurs produce increasingly offensive material for news media to lap up and redistribute, accusing them of censorship when they fail to bite. We don’t want to fan such flames.

We also believe we should not rotely transmit propaganda images designed to sow fear and terror. These could include images that display hostages in demeaning situations, prisoners being abused or the bloodied bodies of vanquished enemies. Sometimes such images, or crops of them, may be essential to convey an event.

On occasion we’ve run a few seconds of video of a hostage. We also ran the well-known photos of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But any such material requires discussion by our editors and a judgment that it is truly newsworthy. We never transmit such material simply because “it’s out there” and others are carrying them.

What about images mocking Christianity or Judaism?
We try to be even-handed. We have declined to run cartoons demeaning Jews and the Holocaust, although we have referred to them in stories when the reaction to them has made news. In the urgency of a 24-hour newsroom, some images get through despite our best efforts; we removed from our service some photos we put out showing a crowd in Afghanistan burning a cross to disparage Christianity.

These are AP news policies for the pictures we distribute in our news reports. In addition, the company has a separate commercial photo business called AP Images that, among other things, has an archive of 22 million photos, including AP pictures that predate our current editorial standards and pictures from many other photo partners. Sometimes photos that don’t meet our current editorial standards are found among those millions of pictures.

Thus, on Wednesday we removed from AP Images some Charlie Hebdo cartoons that had come from a non-AP source. We also became aware that a 25-year-old image of the controversial “Piss Christ” photo was among the photos there, and removed it. Of course, every removal is a judgment call, and we took some flak over the decision on “Piss Christ.”

We learned long ago that some of our news decisions will be controversial. While there’s certainly a slippery slope that leads to avoiding any image that could cause offense, there’s an equally slippery one that leads to suspending our editorial judgment and allowing our news service to be hijacked by whatever offensive image is circulating on a given day. Our best approach is to try to be as thoughtful and even-handed as we can, knowing we’ll sometimes be criticized for a decision not everyone likes.

But what about the censorship issue? Who is the AP to decide what images the world will see?
This question was more valid a couple of decades ago, when a very small number of international news agencies “owned the wires” that distributed photos around the world. If the agencies chose not to run a photo, few were likely ever to see it. Even at that time, we felt a responsibility to use our judgment and distribute only those photos we were comfortable with.

But now the censorship argument has largely evaporated. The most hotly disputed images of recent years can usually be found easily via search engines and social networks by anyone who wants to see them. In the Internet era, we are free to edit our news service in line with our own professional consciences and the valid needs of our readers and subscribers without people being able to claim we’re making some decision for the entire world. We have an editorial policy, and that’s what you get from AP.

AP statement on Mueller report

AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll offered the following statement in response to a report from former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who was hired by the NFL to investigate how the league pursued evidence in the Ray Rice abuse case:

“We have reviewed the report and stand by our original reporting.

“The Mueller team did ask us for source material and other newsgathering information, but we declined. Everything that we report and confirm goes into our stories. We do not offer up reporters’ notes and sources.”

Read the AP news story.

AP CEO demands answers from DOJ and FBI

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of The Associated Press, delivers the keynote address at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce annual meeting luncheon in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Pruitt spoke on the subject of "Free Press vs. National Security: The False Choice." (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of The Associated Press, delivers the keynote address at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce annual meeting luncheon in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Protesting the FBI’s impersonation of an Associated Press reporter, AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt today demanded answers from Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey.

In a letter addressed to both men, Pruitt likened the FBI’s impersonation during a 2007 investigation to identity theft and said the move seriously threatens the organization’s ability to gather news.

“In stealing our identity, the FBI tarnishes [AP’s] reputation, belittles the value of the free press rights enshrined in our Constitution and endangers AP journalists and other newsgatherers around the world,” Pruitt wrote. “This deception corrodes the most fundamental tenet of a free press – our independence from government control and corollary responsibility to hold government accountable.”

Pruitt added that the 2007 violation is another case of government overreach, as was the Justice Department’s secret seizure of AP phone records, which came to light last year.

Read the AP news story.

AP ‘outraged’ by FBI impersonation

One week after it was reported that the FBI had fabricated an Associated Press story during a 2007 investigation, the bureau’s director has revealed that the agency also impersonated an AP reporter during the probe.

In a letter published today in The New York Times, James B. Comey says: “That technique was proper and appropriate under Justice Department and F.B.I. guidelines at the time.”

As reported by AP, AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll reacted as follows:

“This latest revelation of how the FBI misappropriated the trusted name of The Associated Press doubles our concern and outrage, expressed earlier to Attorney General Eric Holder, about how the agency’s unacceptable tactics undermine AP and the vital distinction between the government and the press.”

In an earlier letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser had decried the FBI’s forging of the AP story.

AP decries FBI fabrication of news story

Responding to the news this week that the FBI had fabricated an Associated Press story during a 2007 investigation, the AP expressed serious concern to Attorney General Eric Holder.

“In carrying out this scheme, the FBI both misappropriated the trusted name of The Associated Press and created a situation where our credibility could have been undermined on a large scale,” AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser said in a letter [PDF] delivered to Holder on Thursday.

“Any attempt by the government, whatever its motives, to falsely label its own messages as coming from the news media serves to undermine the vital distinction between the government and the press in society,” Kaiser added. “Such actions also compromise our ability to gather the news safely and effectively in parts of the world where our credibility rests on the basis of AP operating freely and independently.”

Read the AP news story.

AP reacts to alteration of photo

Mideast Syria

Above is the original photo taken by Contreras and below is the altered version that AP distributed.

The Associated Press has ended its ties with Narciso Contreras, a freelance photographer who has worked for AP in the Middle East, following his recent admission that he altered a photo that he took last September in Syria.

The action involved the removal of a video camera seen in a corner of a frame showing a Syrian opposition fighter taking cover during a clash with government forces. The alteration violates AP’s News Values & Principles. This code of AP standards says: “AP pictures must always tell the truth. We do not alter or digitally manipulate the content of a photograph in any way … No element should be digitally added to or subtracted from any photograph.”

“AP’s reputation is paramount and we react decisively and vigorously when it is tarnished by actions in violation of our ethics code,” said Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon. “Deliberately removing elements from our photographs is completely unacceptable and we have severed all relations with the freelance photographer in question. He will not work for the AP again in any capacity.”

Contreras was among the five photojournalists whose images of the Syrian civil war in 2012 earned AP the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography in the spring of 2013. The image that he subsequently altered was taken on Sept. 29, 2013.

AP has notified the Pulitzer board that an image taken a year after the prize was awarded was flawed, but that none of the images in AP’s prize entry, including six by Contreras, were compromised in any way. After re-examining nearly 500 other photos by Contreras distributed by AP, Lyon said he was satisfied that no other alteration took place. However, consistent with AP’s standards and policies, all of Contreras’ photos for AP will no longer be available for commercial licensing.

AP’s story about the incident can be read here.

Executive editor on why AP sought Newtown 911 tapes

The Associated Press sought the 911 calls made during the Dec. 14, 2012, shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, killed 20 children and six educators. On Wednesday, the calls were posted on the town’s website after AP prevailed in a monthslong legal effort to obtain them.

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained why the AP wanted to review the tapes as follows:

“We all understand why some people have strong feelings about the release of these tapes. This was a horrible crime. It’s important to remember, though, that 911 tapes, like other police documents, are public records. Reviewing them is a part of normal newsgathering in a responsible news organization.”

“Everyone knows what happened on that awful day. What we still don’t understand is why it happened. Perhaps we never will. But it’s our job to ask questions and gather facts for stories that seek to understand why.”

Carroll also discussed why AP pursued a legal challenge on the BBC World Service.

Read the AP news story.

AP statement on CPJ report

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a report today on the Obama administration and the press that references the secret seizure of AP phone records by the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this year.

Read today’s AP news story about the report, which includes the following statement from Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll:

“The report highlights the growing threats to independent journalism in the United States, a country that has for two centuries upheld press freedom as a measure of a democratic society.

“We find we must fight for those freedoms every day as the fog of secrecy descends on every level of government activity. That fight is worthwhile, as we learned when the outcry over the Justice Department’s secret seizure of AP phone records led to proposed revisions intended to protect journalists from overly broad investigative techniques. Implementation of those revisions is an important next step.”